A Time for Change
New Developments at Courage
‘No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one, after drinking the old wine, wants the new, for he says, The old is better.’
Luke 5:3739 (NIV)
During 2001, the work of Courage underwent major changes. After fourteen years of ministry, I needed a break. But more to the point, I wanted to take time out to seek God about our future. I no longer felt happy to continue with our former ethos. This requires a little explanation.
When Courage began in 1988, I shared the view commonly held amongst conservative evangelical Christians that, according to the Bible, we are all made male and female and that the union of a man and a woman fulfils God’s purposes for mankind with godly marriage and family life forming the essential building blocks for a stable society. I still hold firmly to that view.
What I felt increasingly unhappy about was some of the assumptions we held concerning homosexuality. In those days, we believed that a homosexual orientation signalled a breakdown of God’s creation plan and homosexual desires/practice were indicative of man’s rebellion against God. So to accept homosexual practice would have been anathema. A few biblical texts strongly reinforced this view (Leviticus 18:20; 20:13: Romans 1:26,27; 1 Corinthians 6:911; 1 Timothy 1:911). Sexual intimacy, we believed, was for marriage alone.
Yet we knew that homosexual people do not voluntarily choose their orientation. Knowing personally what a distressing issue this can be to live with, especially given the general antipathy, if not outright hostility, of society and the Church, I began the ministry of Courage, believing that the gospel offers hope for gay people too, if they earnestly seek to worship God and follow Jesus Christ as Lord.
Discipleship and Pastoral Care
Our non-negotiable view regarding homosexuality, promoted the belief that ‘the answer’ was either to be found through the possibility of change-’to become heterosexual as God intended’, if this was the heart’s desire of the person seeking help, or at the very least to live a celibate life. We believed such objectives could be realised through a lifestyle of ongoing repentance, devotion to Christ and a willingness ‘to deal with the deeper issues’ (e.g. abuse, rejection, lack of bonding to the same-sex parent, etc.).
Our understanding was that homosexuality originates from a deficit in normal same-sex bonding and role models in childhood and also a deep need for unconditional love. We therefore reckoned that non-sexual same-sex bonding within the Christian community would allow a person to ‘mature to adult heterosexuality’ and maybe even go on to marry. The arguments put forward for this rather prescriptive approach seemed compelling at the time and many people welcomed our ministry initiative, recognising that the pastoral need is great.
After ten years, however, six spent running residential discipleship courses, followed by years of weekly group meetings, it was increasingly clear that however repentant people were, and however much dedication and effort they put into seeking change, none were really ‘successful’ in the long term in ‘dealing with the deeper issues’. This is not to say that people gained no benefit! Many matured greatly. A few married (though their same-sex attractions remain an ongoing issue for them). But the kind of change everyone really hoped for to re-orientate and reach a point where their struggle with being gay was over remained elusive. We never saw the fruit we longed for.
God Rewards Those Who Truly Seek Him
Those sincere and God-fearing folk we worked with over many years had showed a most exceptional level of dedication to ‘dealing with their issues’. Critics may be quick to argue that ‘working through the issues’ is not the point. Many Christians down the centuries have made huge sacrifices to follow Christ; this is part of our calling! Moreover, the grace of God apparent in the lives of those who, out of their love for the Lord, have battled courageously with sickness, disability and all manner of persecution and suffering are an inspiration to us all. But many gay Christians have suffered too, facing a life of inner conflict and loneliness with courage, as they renounced the possibility of a gay relationship. Celibacy, it seemed, was still the only option for a gay Christian.
Yet the word celibacy is not to be found anywhere in the Bible. The idea of ‘renouncing marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven’ was introduced by Jesus (Matthew 19:12) and supported by Paul (1 Corinthians 7:7). But they are clear: singleness is a gift. In fact, insistence upon celibacy has no biblical support.
Nevertheless the Church still demands celibacy for all unmarried people. Under this pressure, I’ve seen many folk become seriously disillusioned over the years. Some became deeply depressed and hopeless, even suicidal; others embraced a more ‘liberal’ theology and sought gay relationships. Some just lost their faith altogether a tragic conclusion that I found heart-breaking, as a pastor committed to helping people find their hope in Christ.
In contrast, I saw that those who began, on their own initiative, to embrace the possibility of a gay relationship, benefited greatly. Common to all was an underlying longing for companionship and intimacy a heart-longing, not merely a craving to pursue gay sex! So I realised that to dismiss erotic intimacy between gay men merely as the pursuit of lust was to seriously misjudge the situation. Gay relationships, entered into sincerely, with mutual commitment, provide value and a sense of belonging. And when Christ has central place, people’s morale above all their hope in God recovers.
Seeing the pastoral issues first hand, I could not believe that God was indifferent to the prayers of those we worked with having promised to reward those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). Nor could I believe that our God who truly cares, then abandons his disciples to frustration and despair condemning them forever if they pursue a relationship that, according to traditional thinking, he could never accept!
The Bible recognises from the beginning (Genesis 2:18) that man needs companionship. For those unable to marry, which Jesus acknowledged, (Matthew 19:11,12), who find lifelong celibacy unsustainable, clearly they can benefit from a godly same-sex relationship (albeit with an erotic dimension to that relationship). We saw that this was far preferable to seeing people give up hope and, in their despair and ambivalence, become vulnerable to some very unhealthy situations.
Giving serious consideration to this ‘new perspective’ (new for us at any rate) raised some hugely important questions for our ministry and created significant tensions.
In the eyes of conservative evangelical Churches, moving in this direction prompted fears that we had simply capitulated to the current world view, in apparently now approving of the gay life! In fact what we wanted was the space to be able to stand back and take a more objective view, to reassess what is Godly and beneficial and recognise what is not.
Trying to maintain a credible, authentic basis for Christian ministry in the eyes of our critics and remain faithful to what we believed God was saying to us was very difficult. Some supporters were quick to judge and withdrew their financial support if they felt our commitment to biblical standards was being compromised. Reassuringly, others recognised with us that the time had come for reassessment; they also saw the need for a change of approach. For those we endeavoured to help and support, we came to see that developing a close committed same-sex relationship is valid and valuable in itself.
Again, critics may argue that ‘Sin may appear to satisfy in the short term, but this is no excuse!’ However if we regard these matters as non-negotiable, I believe we completely fail to recognise the acutely painful dilemmas for many gay people.
Besides, why did Jesus call us to follow him, if there is no hope of finding a way forward, if celibacy is the only option? Why bother to study the Scriptures, or seek God in intercessory prayer, if there is nothing more to be said on the matter? In any case, what criteria do we have for judging committed love between two people as sinful, except for adultery?
What is Morally Acceptable?
Biblical law was given at a time when people saw nothing wrong with a man having many wives. We do not accept polygamy today presumably because we believe this runs contrary to God’s creation plan. So why did the Bible not unequivocally forbid it? And how did Moses dare to permit divorce when it is clear from Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 19:8,9) that God had always been against it? Jesus did give an explanation, that ‘Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of men’s’ hearts’, which presumably he considered to be a reasonable justification in the circumstances. But more to the point, I believe, Jesus made it clear in this context that those in spiritual leadership do have the God-given authority to determine what is right and appropriate practice for the Christian community (see also Matthew 16:1820).
The pastoral concerns we face today require that we revisit thorny questions of sexuality and ask what is truly important to God? What constitutes morally upright behaviour and what does not?
Surely the greatest lesson that both Moses and Paul have to teach us is not that there is one inviolable rule concerning homosexuality for all time; the lesson they have to teach us for today is to seek God! They would hardly expect us, surely, to impose biblical statutes drawn up for a bygone age, when their own understanding of the will of God came about as a direct result of their own personal relationship with him? If the law is all we need, Paul would never have needed to seek God for himself, nor seek him on behalf of those for whom he provided apostolic oversight!
In his letter to the Romans, Chapter One, Paul describes a people whose depravity was the result of turning their backs on God. Today, however, seeing so many committed Christians who are themselves gay or lesbian, how can it be appropriate to impute such a judgement to those who have whole-heartedly sought God for many years?
Reconciliation with God
Clearly the sense of alienation from God (and from themselves) that many lesbian and gay people have experienced, also the guilt and shame, has contributed nothing to godly living, never mind healing. So how can we, with any integrity, proclaim a message of ‘healing’ from homosexuality if God is not supporting it? Moreover, I do not see what scriptural basis we have for doggedly insisting that any and every form of erotic expression outside monogamous heterosexual marriage is sinful.
Everyone needs to know the unconditional love of Christ; gay people are no exception. While it may be argued that pursuit of ‘casual sex’ calls for repentance, from years of persistent prayer and Bible study, I’ve concluded that there is scope in scripture for acceptance of committed, intimate same-sex relationships. This is not an ‘anything goes’ approach-anyone seeking to be Christ-centred will naturally yearn to find a basic moral framework and ethos for gay and lesbian relationships.
By the year 2000, it had become clear that God was requiring of our ministry a marked change of attitude, outlook and policy.
Allowing the Lord to Lead us
It is my hope that, as Christians, we will be willing to see what God is doing (John 5:1921). This means recognising the need and desire that sincere lesbian and gay Christians have for intimate relationship. If we neglect to do so, I believe we fail to recognise what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Churches in these days.
There is no doubt that we are being challenged to understand the core issues better, to allow God to lead us forward and, in all we do, seek to bring honour to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! Over the last three to four years, we have come some way to finding measured answers to many pastoral issues raised. But the need to stand back and take time to seek God, at this time especially, has been vital.
While our pastoral approach to lesbian and gay people has changed, because of the experiences God has led us through since 1988, our basic understanding of the essential issues of the Christian faith remain the same. For me, seeking to love Christ and ensure He is given central place in our lives has to remain at the core of the overall values of the Courage ministry.
© Jeremy Marks
(Updated November 2003)
‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
‘Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’
Matthew 7:712 (NIV)